Australia – Romano’s arrival

We had a very fast sail from Samarai in Papua New Guinea to Cairns completing the 480 miles in just under 2 days 17 hours giving an average speed of 7.4 knots and our best ever 24 hour mileage of 188 nm, an average speed of 7.83 knots. These speeds include a slow start through the islands of PNG against a foul tide. We were flying, it was quite uncomfortable but nobody minded, we were escaping Papua New Guinea and getting to Australia quickly. With the same three crew, my son David, a friend of mine Nick Orr and myself we operated 4 hour watches through the night. During the day there was always at least one of us in the cockpit. We spent the day hours doing crosswords, reading, mending, catching up on sleep and cooking, food takes on a high importance and meals are always a highlight at sea. David is a chef so we ate really well from the meagre provisions we were able to buy in PNG, ever tried sweet and sour spam?

Crew relaxing on the crossing

Nick had a sodden bunk on the first day because “someone” had turned the forward dorade round to face the bow and the green water coming over the bow hosed down onto his bunk. Nick denies turning it to get more air in his cabin so it remains a mystery but it has faced aft for 4 years, until now?? Wet bunks soon warm up though!

As we approached the Australian coast we were buzzed by a Border Control C130 aircraft which passed overhead at 300 feet or so, we’d been spotted and reported, we later found out. Our radio was turned off because of an intermittent faulty alarm because it thinks it’s lost GPS position so we were too late to chat to them, they were gone.

We arrived off Cairns at 01.00 hours and anchored in Mission Bay to await a favourable tide to take us up river to Marlin marina. We were allocated a berth and told to await the arrival of the authorities. We had already emailed notice of arrival from Samarai and we had been able to arrange for multiple entry visas online through the U.K. Failure to do so results in heavy fines, Australia is very strict on immigration but we had no problems and were treated most courteously. The customs girls arrived with a couple of lovely young Labrador bitches to carry out the drugs and firearms searches. The dogs were fitted with little boots so they didn’t damage the boat with their claws, very considerate! Once we had cleared in it was off for a decent shower, we have to be careful with water on passage so the luxury of a long hot shower is very welcome.

A sailors reward!

After the deprivations, lawlessness and poverty of Papua New Guinea, Australia seemed like the promised land created by the Wizard of Oz. When you return to a first world country after months of living in third world conditions it’s an assault on the senses – cars, roads, traffic lights, noise, thousands of people rather than small quiet villages, hundreds of shops instead of one and you are immediately aware of the conspicuous consumerism and inherent waste of the “haves”

Well we rejoined the “haves” with relish and went out for several cold beers and large steaks for David and I, Nick decided on a huge plate of ribs, there must have been half a pig on his plate!

Back with the haves in Cairns

We spent a very pleasant few days in Cairns and in hindsight it’s probably my favourite place in Australia so far but the plan was to move the boat south to Brisbane or Bundaberg to get out of the cyclone zone and keep the insurers happy. The boat underwriters approved either place as a layover stop. I had decided not to sail down to Sydney and as it happened it was a wise choice. The wind normally switches from the SE trades to the NE monsoon in October which gives boats heading south favourable weather, this year however we had strong south easterlies right through to December which is why I’m writing this in Bundaberg the most northerly “safe” haven.

We stopped off at a number of sandy beach islands and anchorages coming down, Fitzroy, Mourilyan, Dunk Island and Scraggy Point which joy of joys is where my heads blocked up. On inspection it was clear the pipes had seriously calcified, acid wee and salt water equals calcium. I tried pouring muriatic acid down the pipe but only succeeded in getting a disgusting foaming mess coming out of the pipe and no amount of acid cleared the blockage. Fortunately we have two separately plumbed heads on the boat so we didn’t have to resort to the bucket and chuck it brigade. We headed down through Hinchbrooke Passage which is a long narrow cut of about 20 miles which cuts off the headland and saves a 60 mile round trip. We had to time it right for our exit which is very shallow and we squeaked through with only 0.2 of a metre under the keel at times. We anchored overnight in a very peaceful spot close to the end of this very attractive area, which reminded me a bit of some Scottish lochs. This meant we could time our exit as close as possible to high tide. This left us with a 60 mile passage across Halifax Bay before heading up river to Townsville Yacht Club Marina to restock and refuel and buy some new piping for the loo.

A huge pier, the longest I’ve ever seen used to ship sugar from the nearby processing plants

The next day I spent repiping the toilet, not one of my favourite jobs but it went surprisingly well, Murphy must have been on holiday that day! I now have a fully functioning loo again and many years I hope before it blocks again. I’ll keep putting vinegar down to keep the calcium deposits at bay. David and Nick volunteered to do the shopping while I played plumber, a wise move on their part!

After a couple of days in port we headed off to Bowling Green Bay anchorage and had a good sail, another day trip of about 40 miles. The bay is huge, one of the features of east coast Australia and the anchorage is tucked around the back of Bowling Green Point. David reckoned this was the most boring place on Earth. As it’s name implies the land around is completely flat and you anchor miles off shore because it’s so shallow so there is nothing to see. It’s like anchoring in the middle of the ocean and the boat rolled all night because the headland’s so far away there’s little protection from swell, so why it’s described as an anchorage in the pilot books is a mystery.

We had a couple more overnight stops at Bowen, another anchorage miles from the coast in another shallow bay and at Saddleback Island where we were able to anchor just off a nice sandy spit. David and Nick spotted some distant crocodile so swimming was not an option. We shower on the sugar scoop on the stern in the evening and we all kept a wary eye on the water while doing our ablutions. One of the disappointments of this coast has been the lack of swimming and snorkelling we’ve been able to do partly because of the dangers; big bad sharks; Australia’s famous salt water crocodiles which grow to 6m; jellyfish or stingers as they call them here, some of which can kill you but they’re too small to see and; sea snakes. The other problem was water clarity it was pretty murky all the way down the Barrier reef so you couldn’t see what was coming to get you anyway. We did swim where the locals said it was safe and many of the popular beaches have nets to keep the nasties out.

A more benign visitor to the boat, a Saffron Cockatoo who gave us a good inspection

We arrived next in Airlie Beach bang on time to collect Jan, Nicks wife, who had flown out from the U.K. to spend a month with us on the boat. It was also Nick’s 70th Birthday so they treated David and I to a slap up meal in Hemingway’s at the marina. As part of our marina fee we became temporary members of the Ocean Club where they served a light breakfast out on the veranda and we could also use the barbeque to cook an evening meal of steaks and salad. Airlie Beach is a popular mainland resort and gateway to the Whitsunday Islands which lie just a few miles off the coast so when we had tired of Airlie we set off to explore. First stop was Hook Island where we anchored in a very peaceful spot up one of the deep creeks. It was a great spot for the kayak, protected from wind and wave and a decent enough paddle with lots to see. The great thing about the kayak is it’s very stealthy so you can creep up on wildlife and marine life without spooking them. Here we saw Sea Eagles, parrots, egrets, storks, and when I landed in one of the bays the wet sand where the tide had gone out was covered in thousands of small crabs. I walked through them and they parted like the Red Sea and when I came back along the beach they had all disappeared, buried in the sand and leaving a spotty beach with thousands of little poo piles where they’d ejected the sand they eat for nutrients. As dusk came on the bigger fish went hunting, rounding up the sprats which made the water around us boil as they came leaping out of the water to escape often pursued by a larger fish.

In the morning we set sail for the famous Whitehaven beach, the longest beach in the Whitsundays. After a good sail we anchored 100 yards off the beach in 4 metres of water with another thirty boats anchored around us. Nick, Jan and David kayaked ashore to stretch their legs while I lazed reading in the cockpit, watching the comings and goings of the boat’s around us. Come six o’clock the beach was deserted, the tour boats had collected their passengers and only a few yachts were left as night fell.

After a rolly night we set off for Turtle Beach through the narrow channel between Whitsunday Island and Hasle Wood Island and along the south side of Whitsunday Island. This wasn’t the turtle nesting season but we did see one as we came into the bay.

David exploring on an island off Saddleback.

Our next stop was the exclusive Hamilton Island, the main resort island of the Whitsundays. We called in on the radio and the marina confirmed they had space for us. We were met by Matt on the dock who took our lines and presented the bill with credit card machine in hand for our one night stay – $130 (£80) making this the most expensive marina I have stayed in, beating Lisbon by £15.00 and it was nothing special. We went ashore to have a look round and it was obvious the only modes of transport were golf buggies to rent by the thousand, free buses or Shank’s pony. Given our limited time we grabbed a bite to eat and I walked up the hill to catch a free bus, David opted for the beach and Jan and Nick set off on the pony!

In the late afternoon I stocked up at the local supermarket to cover us for the next few days and we all met back at the boat for dinner.

We island hopped our way down to Mackay marina stopping at Goldsmith Island where we watched two Sea Eagles hunting and numerous turtles; Brampton Island where we saw our first kangaroos and a deserted resort wiped out by a cyclone; Keswick Island which is a beautiful national park and from there a day sail to Mackay for provisions and fuel. Our next provisioning stop was to be Keppel Bay marina and the nearby town of Yepoon. As we passed Hay Point a few miles south of Mackay we motored through a fleet of around 100 ships at anchor, mostly Chinese waiting to load coal or ore. At the massive wharf six ships were being loaded on a continuous basis. When they were full the next one moved in to take its place. Ships can queue for up to six weeks before being called to load, hence the large number waiting. They don’t join the queue until they check in. Last year the port loaded nearly 1200 ships, a truly enormous operation, fuelling the Chinese dragon.

My first sighting of a kangaroo in the wild, a great moment.

Once again we island hopped from one lovely island to another; Prudhoe Island which provided little shelter when the wind got up and then moved from the west through to the east forcing us to haul anchor in the evening and move round the corner to a quieter spot which was still quite rolly making it an uncomfortable night; Curlew Island which had a nice beach but we arrived too late to go ashore; Hunter Island in the Duke Island group where we received a storm warning over the VHF and headed for Shoalwater Bay on the mainland to find shelter. That was a joke, when we got there the land around was as flat as a pancake affording no shelter from the wind at all but we dropped the hook as close to land as we dared and waited. It hit us at 7 o’clock that evening with winds gusting at 45 knots, we shook rattled and rolled but the anchor held well. As it was a wide shallow bay making the tides much stronger than normal so the anchor had to cope with an extra four knot push on the ebbtide as well as the effect of the wind. On the second day there was no sign of respite and we were out of radio reach of the coast guard which meant we had no idea what the weather was forecast to do so we decided to head for a nearby creek for better shelter.

The abandoned resort on Brampton, destroyed by a cyclone. It was still furnished and equipped!

As we raised the anchor the boat jerked up on a wave and snapped the swivel leaving our anchor firmly embedded 6m below. Fortunately I carry two main anchors so we shackled up the Fortress with a 6 ton shackle hoping that would hold. This move proved a good idea, our new anchorage offered better shelter and flatter seas even in higher winds so we sat tight for another day until the wind started to ease and we set off for Keppel Bay Marina in brilliant sunshine and 28*C.

In Keppel Bay Nick kindly offered to buy me a new anchor and I opted for a 32kg Delta which arrived about 5 days later. Nick and Jan had to leave us here to fly to Auckland and then on to Whangarei, where we first met, for Jan to complete another 3 months as a locum. They treated David and I to a lovely farewell meal in Hemingways. We saw them off on the bus the following morning, only for them to re-appear 2 hours later, Nick had left his passport on the boat. Luckily they weren’t going directly to the airport.

Nick and Jan waiting for the bus to Rockhampton and on to Brisbane.

The marina lent out cars for two hour periods on a free basis so we took the opportunity to go into Yepoon, the nearest town about 5 miles away to do some food shopping. Two hours gave us just enough time to do the round trip and shop, if you went over it cost you a half day hire so it was pretty good incentive to keep to time.

Once David and I had fitted the new anchor a few days later we set off for Great Keppel Island and anchored in a nice bay with a great beach. That afternoon we watched a huge thunderstorm sweep over the mainland and watched the light show from a safe distance, or so we thought! The storm which had been running up the coast swung out to sea and we were suddenly right in its path, this was going to be a test for our new anchor. We let out more chain, fortunately we had anchored well out in the bay as the storm pushed us towards the beach with 55 knot winds and torrential rain. The good news was the anchor held and we didn’t bump the bottom it’s always a worry when you get a 180 degree wind shift that it pulls the anchor out and it drags along the bottom without resetting. Next morning when we woke the storm had passed over only a few boats were left having run for cover but one unfortunate catamaran had dragged it’s anchor and was up on the beach. One of the power boats with a shallow draft pulled him off on the rising tide and no harm done apart from injured pride.

Great photo of the storm over Queensland by Alex Gregg.

Later that morning David went ashore for a run, part of his daily exercise routine, it was a great wide flat beach for running on, unfortunately he got cramp and pulled a muscle quite badly. In hot climates, salt deficiency can lead to quite bad cramps. After some ibruprofen cream and a couple of tablets he was able to come ashore for a leisurely walk to the next bay and back.

Another great Queensland beach

Our next provisioning stop was to be Gladstone Marina some 60 miles south. The wind was fresh and direction good and we had a great sail to the river mouth. It was a further 10 miles up river to the town and it was 5 o’clock in the evening when we entered the river so we dropped anchor in the lee of Facing island and had a couple of beers while the sun went down. From a safety standpoint we never drink alcohol while sailing so it nice in the evening to relax over a drink and nibbles. The following morning we went up river to the marina and a couple of mature australian ladies helped us tie up. We only intended staying for a day or so but the weather turned against us and we were stuck in port for 6 days. The marina was about 3 miles out of town and they ran a bus service into town. We used the service once and walked in after that for the exercise. The local yacht club ran a cruisers night so David and I walked out in the evening and joined about 40 other yachties for drinks and dinner. After a couple of days we were bored, there wasn’t a great deal to do in the marina and surrounds but still the weather blew strongly from the south, just where we wanted to go.

We were now only 100 miles north of Bundaberg or a couple of day sails where I was going to sit out the cyclone season until April. We weren’t in any hurry as we still had 4 weeks before David had to catch his flight home but it was frustrating sitting there never the less, I much prefer being at anchor and sailing than sitting in port getting “harbour rot”!

A bit of maintenance work on board

On the 6th November the wind swung in our favour as the weather system passed over and we set sail for Pancake Creek. The anchorage was a lot shallower than shown on the chart so we just tucked in around the headland out of the weather. I heard later from an Aussie sailor who ran aground the twice there breaking the back of his boat both times, his insurance claims were $88000 and $120000 so I’m glad we stopped going in any further.

The following day was our last sail for a few months, we had advance warning of a storm heading NE to Bundaberg, forecasted to hit at 16.00. We got into Bundaberg at 15.30 under gathering clouds, at 17.00 the storm arrived with recorded wind speeds of 70 knots Romano was pushed over on to the pontoon but the fenders held up. A catamaran was not so lucky it broke free of the mooring and was driven up onto a pontoon where it was holed and started to sink. The marina sent out its work boat to stop it drifting out to sea and successfully beached it in the next bay. Despite our wild welcome it was good to reach our destination after 4200 miles and another great sailing season.

Fortunately they managed to beach her and she was lifted out a week later by a couple of huge cranes. The local hotel provided the unlucky couple with free board and bed.

The lift out third attempt after she’d been stripped and pumped out to lighten her

Romano safe in Port Bundaberg Marina

Bundaberg Marina is set on the mouth of the Burnett River and about 20 kilometres from the Town. The village of Burnett Heads is our nearest shopping destination with a small supermarket, an “offy”, a post office, a couple of restaurants, a fish and chippy, a hotel and bar and a hairdresser so it caters for most basic needs. It’s about a 3 kilometre walk from the marina to the village but both the hotel and IGA supermarket run a minibus service and will pick you up and take you back with your purchases, Tesco take note! As it happened I only used the bus service after a mega shop when I couldn’t carry the load, otherwise it was an opportunity for a bit of exercise. This could be a dangerous mission however it meant braving the man-eating parrots and Stuka dive bombing lapwings that attack as you pass they’re nesting grounds. I found waving an empty shopping bag the best deterrent, the birds would shear off a few feet away. It was quite an unnerving experience however as they would dive bomb us screeching just as they swept passed and coming at us from all directions and when the lapwings gave up as you walked on the parrots took over. So with deadly snakes in the grass, killer spiders, mosquitoes and poisonous cane toads it’s not surprising Australians drive everywhere. If you don’t have one you take your life in your hands crossing the bush or walking up the verges!

Bundaberg Marina

David had three weeks to go before the flight home and there’s not much to do around the marina. We attended the Friday barbecues at Cruisers Cove, David ran a few miles each morning, we did some food shopping every couple of days, read and whiled away the hours until it was time for David to catch his train to Brisbane. He had an uneventful journey home and sent an email to say he’d arrived safely.

It was a great experience spending 8 months sailing with him, it was so easy with him on board and he was a natural around the boat. Not many Dads get to spend that sort of quality time to spend with their adult children.

Now I was on my own it was time for me to knuckle down to the jobs list which was a bit shorter than last year’s at only 96 items but in a perverse way I quite enjoy maintaining and upgrading the boat when I don’t have any time pressures. I spent the first couple of weeks planning them out and using eBay to buy in the parts and tools I needed. I also squeezed in a bit of Ukelele practice and managed a faltering “Silent Night” rendition by Christmas.

Romano decorated for Xmas

The two major work activities this year are new drop in fridge and freezer as I’m fed up with the old one breaking down and losing food and living out of tins. This meant stripping out the old equipment from galley and engine room, installing the new self contained units and rebuilding the galley around them. I had a kitchen company come to provide a quote, they estimated $4000 just for labour. To hell with that I thought, I’ll do it myself and spent $300 on the tools and material I needed and set to work. It took me 4 weeks working every day from 8 till 4 and progress was slow but I wasn’t in a hurry. I had to machine the Corian work surfaces in the main cabin to be able to measure, cut and try, then adjust again and again, but what a mess. It took 4 days to clean up the boat, the Corian dust got everywhere.

It looks like snow but not in 30 degrees.

Job done and a lot of money saved.

The other big job is the engine overhaul, the engine has done 5000 hours, which means hauling the boat out and getting the work done by the local Volvo engineers. I won’t get much change out of $8,000 but we’ll be doing a lot of motoring in Indonesia so it should give peace of mind.

Once that’s done I’m going to hire a camper van and go off exploring and visiting friends in Sydney and Melbourne.

A spectacular Ozzie sunset

Just had a great spaghetti Bolognese in the cockpit, watched the sun go down, and eased down a couple of glasses of Oz wine, Barbra Streisand on the the music system and some thoughts flowed through my relaxed brain. I spent a lot of the day putting together some collage photos today that I want for the boat, one for my children and granddaughter, one for my parents and sisters, one for the crew who have sailed with me over the 25,000 miles of this journey, one for the fabulous women who have touched my life with love. It’s been quite a journey so many people I love in different ways, those I grew up with, those I married, those I didn’t, my children who grew up to be proud of and those amazing people I met sailing in the last 5 years of my life. So many people who have been a major part of my life. It’s maybe only when you take time to look back like this you take in the real value of friends and family.

The next blog will cover my travels through Australia, new crew and the trip to Cairns to join the Indonesia Rally.